Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Pace Yourself - The Scream Half Marathon

One of my favorite Huxley quotes is about good intentions and their unintended consequences.

"Hell isn't merely paved with good intentions; it's walled and roofed with them. Yes, and furnished too."

Honestly, I didn't anticipate a life full of fiery blowback from my good intentions, but somehow that's what I got. I knew The Scream was coming. I knew that I needed to prepare for it like no other race I've run before. I mean, look at this course profile I stole from Running Down!

If I wear a wingsuit, run really fast, and jump at mile 2, maybe I can
free fall all the way to mile 12.
Unintended Consequences
So, I trained. I ran up and down the itty bitty hills in Umstead, telling myself that I was preparing for The Scream. I started track work in a vain effort to activate what little, gristly fast-twitch muscle I have left in my scrawny, middle-aged legs. And I even added some squats to my weight training routine in the gym.

And how did that work out, you might ask? Well, the hill work in Umstead made me almost puke on numerous occasions, and that's the only positive thing I can say about it. The track work resulted in a lovely relapse of metatarsalgia in my left foot. And the weight training just made me feel like a starved Sisyphus. I couldn't get enough to eat after sessions in the gym.

Approaching the race, I was a pudgy, limping mess. I decided that a vacation was what I needed. And what better place to take a vacation than in the mountains near the site of the race itself? So, I booked a house I found on the interweb which looked promising and was reasonably close to the race, and loaded up the family for a week of fun in the mountains.

Turns out, the house was a 100 year old Hell hole - rotted, moldy, dark and dingy. The promised hot tub was a fungal and bacterial science experiment gone horribly wrong. But the straw that broke my hump-like back, was the hornet's nest that was apparently hidden beneath the hot tub. Turning on the jets must have really irritated those hornets, because no sooner had I hit the button than an angry, little black and white beast from Hell itself, was injecting liquid fire into the tender skin on the top of my left foot. I packed up the van and left a couple of hours after arriving.

Luckily, AC and his better half, Shannon, run one of the best flop houses on the east coast, and graciously allowed me, my lovely wife, and my two crazy boys to sleep at their beautiful rental house while we sorted out new accommodations. A day later, my lovely better half, who is apparently a much better web surfer than I, booked a beautiful mountainside house near Blowing Rock, where we spent the remainder of the week.

Bored yet? Tough. Suck it up buttercup. I got more sad tales to tell before we get to the actual race.

More Sad Tales
The remainder of the week was great, unless you count the constant rain. But that wasn't so bad. At least the 70F temperatures were cooler than the 100F+ temperatures in the lowlands of North Carolina. Besides, hiking in the rainy mountains is actually a very beautiful experience. Exploring misty mountainsides with my kids is now a vivid, lovely family memory I'll carry to my grave. Unfortunately, two days before the race, and a mere 100 yards from the safety of my parked car, I slipped on a rain soaked trail rock and felt my previously injured left knee twist and contort like an angry, demonic, double-jointed mime.

I managed to limp to the car, but felt like any chance of running The Scream had washed down the mountain along with the cold rain now pounding against the windshield.

I spent the next 36 hours awash in the Devil's own rehab; a combination of hot tub soaks, thousands of milligrams of ibuprofen, and copious quantities of good beer. My colon may never be the same again.

Race Day - Pace Day
If you are still reading at this point, that's another unintended consequence. Even I gave up two paragraphs back. But, if you have suffered through to this point, I at least owe you some race related entertainment.

36 hours after dislocating my knee, my wife and I stumbled from bed at 4:30AM, groping wildly for coffee in the dark. I had decided that I would run the race in spite of my painful, swollen knee so that I could attempt to pace my gorgeous wife Sherri to a new sub-2 hour PR in the half marathon. I had abandoned all hope of my original sub-1:50 personal goal and hoped I could manage to limp down the mountain quickly enough to help my wife achieve her own personal record.

Last minute race logistic changes meant that we needed to somehow find a campground in the middle of nowhere during what appeared to be a possible Noahchian deluge. Of course, we got lost. The rain was so heavy that 6 inches of water was rushing across the road in spots. Eventually, I realized we had missed a turn, so I backtracked and finally found our way to the remote campground tucked near the base of the Blue Ridge in the Pisgah National Forest. With lightning splitting the mountain tops just above our heads, my wife and I splashed through the 3 inches of water covering most of the campground, running to catch the shuttle bus seconds before it departed for the race start. There's nothing like running a half marathon with soaked shoes.

The Course - Hellish Descents
Plenty has been written about The Scream course (see AC's preview, and Josh's race report), but I'll add a few words. If you've never run a long downhill race before, nothing will prepare you for The Scream. After the first couple of miles of winding paved road, you turn onto a steep, twisty gravel tractor path that descends for nearly 10 miles (cast your weary eyes back to that stolen elevation profile picture). This "road" is unrelenting. If you aren't flying down steep slopes, you are twisting around rocky, rutted, possibly muddy switchbacks, hoping you don't stumble off the side to cartwheel down though the twisted trunks of mountain laurel trees. There are spots where if you fell off the side and into the dense growth, you would never be found again. If you didn't die impaled upon some gnarled laurel branch, the opossums would surely eat you alive by nightfall.

There are only two short stretches in the middle of the big hill that are not descending, but unfortunately, they are not flat, instead ascending a couple hundred feet over a total distance of about a mile. The first ascent robs you of your legs and your momentum. The second ascent robs you of your will to run, leaving your body a soulless, flimsy husk flopping hopelessly down the final miles. Of course the final two miles of the big hill also happen to be the steepest. And if you make it to the bottom, you still have about 1.5 miles of lumpy, bumpy, hilly riverside road to the finish.

To summarize, this course was awesome!

Ok, we've established that it's a tough hill. However, it's also one of the most beautiful forest runs I've even done. The tall trees sometimes opened to misty views of the course twisting away below you. Other times, you are enclosed within a dark green tunnel, accompanied by nothing but the sounds of the crunching gravel beneath your feet and the twittering of birds in the canopy above. The final couple of miles run parallel to beautiful Wilson Creek. Simply a gorgeous course!

Steep, fast and beautiful.

Crossing Wilson Creek near the finish.

The Race - Pace Yourself
If you've read this blog before (my condolences), you know I stink at racing. I rarely pull everything together at the right time to meet any serious goals, and something (usually, my body) almost always falls apart during the race. I'm not sure why I thought I would be any better at pacing someone during a race, especially since that someone happened to be my own wife, but I did.

Let me tell you, pacing is stressful! I spent the entire race feebly attempting to calculate the pace we were running, the estimated finish time, along with the time we gained or lost for each mile of the race, all with only my wrist watch, the mile markers, and the wetware between my ears. Now add to that mental mathematical stress, the duty of encouraging and prodding your runner to maintain the pace required to set a new PR and the whole affair can go sour very quickly. At times I would find myself down the hill and around two corners, far ahead of my wife. I actually stopped running several times because I had shot too far ahead. Other times, I would be cutting directly across her path, attempting to clip all the corners. In short, I sucked at pacing. I'm terrible at pacing myself. I'm terrible at encouraging myself. I don't know why I thought I would be any good at either for someone else.

Sherri around mile 9, running
well despite my pacing efforts.

Not to say that the race was a total disaster as far as pacing goes, since my wife actually PR'ed by about 10 minutes. But we did miss the stretch pace goal of going sub-2 hour. By 2 f'n minutes! There's some new pavement in Hell with my name on it.

Would I race The Scream again? Definitely. It's a tough, unique race in a beautiful setting. I would love to run it again without a busted knee to see how far below 1:50 I could go. Would I pace anyone in a race again? Not a snowball's chance...